Officials say if they are successful, it could mean an estimated $7 billion injection to the local economy.
By Joe Walker email@example.com
"We're in a listening mode right now, but we want to clearly define the message and go to Washington within the month," said retired businessman Ken Wheeler, chairman of a new task force for the project. "This whole thing has got a sense of urgency."
Helping the 11-member task force are Elaine Spalding, president of the Paducah Area Chamber of Commerce, and Stuart Gilbert, president of the Greater Paducah Economic Development Council.
A laboratory and other endeavors related to the plant, leased by USEC from the Department of Energy, are worth nearly $7 billion to the local economy, Gilbert said. The estimate consists of about $3.25 billion in environmental cleanup jobs and investment opportunities; $1.5 billion in deploying new technologies to replace outdated gaseous diffusion used by the plant; $100 million for research and development of cleanup and enrichment technologies; and $2 billion in two new power plants sought for McCracken County and elsewhere in the Purchase area.
"There are tremendous opportunities for us for new jobs and investments, all based on research and development, and secondly all the other advantages that tie into the 3,200-acre DOE site," Gilbert said.
The delegation plans to meet with Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and senior White House staff, among others, Spalding said. Chamber lobbyist John Cooper is working on the issue at the federal level, she said.
The group wants to be ready by Aug. 1, when the Energy Department is expected to award a contract to convert about 40,000 plant cylinders of spent uranium hexafluoride, or UF6, into a safer, potentially marketable material. Eleven firms including USEC are involved in five bids to convert tons of the material. Federal law mandates the conversion plant be operational by 2004.
A conversion contract is the first catalyst for developing a program to make the information park the site of the state's first national research and development laboratory, said Dr. Len O'Hara, Paducah Community College president and a task force member.
"The only place I believe we could establish justification for building (a laboratory) is right here because we're sitting on billions of dollars of opportunity that no one denies exists," O'Hara said, adding the cylinders contain fluorine alone worth at least $1 billion.
The park also is ideally suited for working on technologies for environmental cleanup at the plant and developing telecommunications networks for utilities, and is "at ground zero on the north-south energy grid," he said.
The University of Kentucky, DOE and USEC are among the businesses and institutions that have expressed interest in the park's resource center, which Gilbert's council wants to sell for $3.5 million.
O'Hara received a letter June 1 from Tom Lester, dean of the UK College of Engineering, saying he is looking forward to "collaboration" with PCC and community leaders on issues related to USEC plant cleanup and advanced uses of discarded resources such as depleted UF6.
"The addition of eight highly-qualified mechanical and chemical engineering faculty at our extended campus site in Paducah should enable us to be even more effective in addressing those issues in the future," Lester wrote.
UK President-elect Lee Todd has said he wants the university to establish a major presence in western Kentucky in research and development. A month ago, he and Lester met with USEC President Nick Timbers to discuss helping with plant-related research. They also expressed interest in expanding UK’s engineering program to provide continuing education for plant workers.
The meeting was at the home of Dr. Bob Meriwether, who is on the newly-formed task force. The Paducah neurosurgeon is a UK graduate and on the university 's board of trustees.
Looking to diversify, USEC also has submitted a bid to the Tennessee Valley Authority to build a 600-megawatt, gas-fired facility near the enrichment plant. The power plant would help move power across TVA's seven-state grid.
USEC and two partners hope to make the short list, expected to be announced July 16. A contract is slated to be awarded by Dec. 14. Work would be completed in time to begin providing power in 2005.